A friend in New Jersey wrote of having driven twelve hours, fuel stops only each way to Chicago in order to see their new grandson. A young mother in New York tearfully spoke of her parents living in California not having seen her daughter, their granddaughter, for almost a year because of the travel restrictions. Oddly enough, while writing this I received a call from my own granddaughter whom I haven’t seen since December of last year.
One of the many things contributing to feelings of deprivation and social isolation as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic, has been the geographic separation of families. Many young adults no longer live near their parents, which has also meant difficulty maintaining closeness between their children and their own parents, between grandchildren and grandparents during this era of covid-19. The limits on these relationships may be experienced differently by the generations involved.
The old joke says that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have an enemy in common. This speaks to the idea that parents are the withholders and grandparents are the indulgers of gratification. To the degree that parents may feel frustrated by grandparent indulgence the currently enforced separation may be appreciated – or perhaps even missed.
However, the emotional experiences involved run deeper than the conventional idea that grandparents like being indulgent while parents have the real responsibility of daily life. The reality is that the birth of a child becomes musical chairs in which everyone moves up a place. The child is now the parent. Instead of being the child of your parent you are now the parent of your child. Our own feelings of dependency are challenged by having someone who is dependent on us. The feeling of being responsible for another life becomes central.
The idea that one is no longer the child, may be difficult for both parents and their parents. Grandparents may give advice based on their experienced wisdom but in expecting their children to listen they are making them children again. In many ways this is a continuation of the developmental process in which children move toward greater independence and struggle to establish their own identity. But the universal impulse to protect one’s children often becomes trying to keep them from making what seem to grandparents to be painful mistakes.
Grandparents want their children to learn from their (the grandparents’) experience – just as they wanted them to when they were growing up. Parents often are trying to correct the things they think were wrong in their own upbringing, which Grandparents often take as a criticism of them. Both parents and grandparents often express being made to feel incompetent by the other.
Parents are learning how to be parents – just as their parents had to learn. And grandparents have to learn how to be grandparents. That learning is the hardest part, and mastery is made more difficult by the current enforced separations. Perhaps the important lesson for grandparents is that their children have to learn in their own way and the present situation may leave no alternative.
As is true of all relationships, the absence of conflict may be appreciated while at the same time the feelings of loss can prevail. Parents who have fond memories of their relationship with their own grandparents, may have some sadness knowing that their children may be deprived of such memories in the years to come.
For grandparents and grandchildren who traditionally are known to have special relationships, the feeling of loss is great, made more bearable by the wonders of modern technology’s modes of communication.